Gong Thai is the most Northern outpost of a unique breed of Fast-Casual Thai Restaurants scattered throughout Manhattan (think Land, Spice, Room Service, ect). Tucked into narrow and unexpected locations with neon signs and quirky decor, when you patronize these restaurants you are guaranteed to walk out full, satisfied, and with a wallet that is only a few dollars lighter. Less polished than some of the Thai Spots you might find on the Upper East Side or in Chelsea, this 16 seat restaurant has smoothly worn tables and chairs that give the place a warm rustic feel, but a few walls that look more like they belong to an abandoned party warehouse in Williamsburg than a Thai restaurant where you’ll get a tasty and super affordable meal. In most of the restaurant this low maintenance and distressed look works, but there are other parts that could really use some updating (for example: the hand-sketched pencil outline of a faux fireplace on the large half wall that separates the dining room from the kitchen is really just a sketch…)
At Gong you’ll find the standard American palate pleasing favorites, an extremely affordable lunch special, great dinner prices, and courteous staff. Offering a menu near identical to most other Thai restaurants, at Gong Thai you can choose to smother your veggies, tofu, faux duck, or your choice of protein with Chili Basil Sauce, Red, Green, or Masaman curries, ginger soy sauce, garlic oyster sauce, or order some type of wok fried noodle. You can also choose from a great mix of appetizers like spring rolls, fried tofu, Thai soups, satay skewers, and dumplings. I went in on a holiday Monday and grabbed the super affordable appetizer + entrée lunch special while on my way home from Farmers Market.
Because I am a serious lover of Thai soups, getting the Tom Yum as my starter was a no brainer. Normally a more intense mix of sweet and sour, this Tom Yum was slightly disappointing because it had less citrusy tang and more shrimp stock flavor than I prefer. Though this soup hit most of the flavor notes one expects with Tom Yum, I kept looking for deeper flavor profiles that never really surfaced. Strangely, what did surface in my Tum Yum was sliced-to-small pieces of woody inedible lemongrass, which didn’t need to be served in my soup.
Delivered to me as a piping hot mound of fat wok-fried rice noodles with fried tofu, charred scrambled egg, spicy peppers, onions, fresh tomato, and Thai basil, the Pad Kee Mow had a taste that equaled its visual appeal. Though it was piping hot and the vegetables were vibrant and tender the brown sauce was a bit one note and could have used a few red pepper flakes. The tofu in the noodles was great, but the rest of the dish fell slightly short.
Even if it technically falls into the drink category, Thai Iced Tea is really more of a dessert than anything else for me. Packed with sinfully sweet condensed milk poured over iced ceylon (or dyed black) tea, I loved the icy sweetness of this tea, despite it being freezing cold outside. Thai Iced tea is a beautiful burnt orange color that starts out dark and transparent, and gradually becomes light and opaque as the tea’s strong citrus and floral notes mix with the syrupy condensed milk.
Though the food at Gong is unmistakably Thai, the flavors were somehow muted, muffled, and flat. Each dish was missing the characteristic hot/sweet/spicy/tangy/fresh burst that I have come to love with Thai food. Would I bring friends here and rave about their food? Not exactly, but what Gong lacks in flavor they most certainly make up for with location; and they get extremely high marks for being the first Thai Restaurant in East Harlem.
Happiness, $25 and Under
For more information about Harlem Eateries and eating local in Harlem, visit Arionna’s blog, Harlem Food Local.